At a life sciences human resources conference this morning in East Brunswick, the speakers of one breakout session asked audience members to introduce themselves and explain their interest in the session.
A theme quickly emerged. Just about everyone in the packed room of HR managers and other executives said they were there to learn how to deal with change, whether it be layoffs, growth or the loss of their own job.
Debbie Hart, president of BioNJ, which organized the event, said human resources professionals have a lot to deal with right now.
“The landscape is changing dramatically, and the question is, how do you make sure that your people are focused and driven?” she said, in an interview prior to the event.
Monday was the organization’s first Life Sciences Human Resource Conference. It drew more than 130 human resources, finance, business development and other executives to the East Brunswick Hilton to tackle a range of issues.
At the aforementioned breakout session, human resources representatives from Merck & Co. and Sanofi spoke about keeping employees engaged during times of change.
Jane Palaia, human resources leader in Merck’s manufacturing division, talked about how she’s dealing with the in-process closure of the company’s Kenilworth plant, first announced last year. When that process is complete, the company will have laid off 580 employees. She said managers should always be out and about speaking with employees, but she said that’s particularly important at times of change.
“What tends to happen is managers recede because they are targets of the change, so they go into their own environment,” she said. “So guess what? After these things are announced, nobody trusts you anymore.”
Palaia said workers typically want to know first why the changes are happening. After that, she said, they want to find out what’s in it for them. When relaying such details, she said, managers should have the philosophy that “there’s never too much information.”
Other topics on Monday’s agenda included balancing compliance and innovation, hiring for a culture fit, innovative approaches to wellness programs, and industry compensation trends, among others.
Kurt Andrews, vice president of human resources at PTC Therapeutics, was one of the organizers of the event. He meets with other biotech HR chiefs regularly as part of a BioNJ committee on HR, but he said Monday’s event was an effort to broaden the conversation beyond the mostly smaller companies involved in the committee.
“As leaders in this community it’s our responsibility to provide opportunities for sharing the best practices for individual skill-set building,” he said. “So then it kind of grew into seminars and classes given by the people in the community.
In addition to building community among HR professionals, the event also dovetailed with the mission of BioNJ’s Life Sciences Talent Network, which works to link employers and job candidates within the state’s pharma and biotech community.
Vicki Gaddy, director of the talent network, said both job seekers and headhunters can benefit from networking opportunities like this and the talent network’s other events.
“By humanizing the process in a greater way, we find we’re giving companies an opportunity to get to know the talent out there,” Gaddy said. “As opposed to resumes going into a black hole, you’ve got people who really know each other and can reach out to resources and connections when they have key positions to fill.”